At first glance, the San Gabriel Valley hardly seems like a neighborhood for a grub crawl. The SGV is the epitome of L.A.'s massive suburban sprawl (enough to make you hum to Arcade Fire), and its restaurants - and there are many scattered around its infinite series of strip malls - are usually far enough away from each other that a minivan rightfully seems like the appropriate means to pursue a food coma.
Perhaps the clearest exception to this rule is the intersection of Las Tunas and Mission, which, if we're valuing intersections by gastronomic potential, must be one of America's best. It's been that way for decades, though most of its early standard-bearers have closed and turned into new standard-bearers. If you're familiar with the SGV, you probably recognize this particular intersection because of Golden Deli, which has had crowds pursuing pho noodle soup and cha gio (fried spring rolls) since the eighties.
You may also recognize it for the original Luscious Dumplings location across the street, widely considered one of L.A.'s champion noodle and dumpling joints. But when you realize it is possible to have an extraordinary meal in those same strip malls without so much as glancing at either of those two restaurants, you'll also decide that sampling merely one restaurant is hardly enough. Bring friends. (The list is in alphabetical order.)
9. Benten Ramen
Ramen mania has long since reached Los Angeles - it's becoming increasingly difficult to find someone who doesn't consider themselves a ramen fanatic in this city - but it is still in its early stages of spreading across the San Gabriel Valley. Benten Ramen is a relatively new arrival, recently replacing Ton Chan Ramen, which was a neighborhood favorite. Contrary to some reports, it is completely independent of the Benten Ramen chain in Tokyo.
The chef is from the Tokyo area, though, and his bowl is very good in its own right. If a bowl of ramen is judged on its individual components as well as its overall composition, as many think it should be, Benten's bowl is particularly noteworthy because of its egg, soft boiled with a creamy interior that is injected - literally - with a hint of soy. It's also worth ordering the tsukemen, where thick ramen-style noodles are laid alongside a gravy-esque concentrated dipping sauce. 821 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel; (626) 910-5075.
8. Emperor Noodles
When you wake up in Shanghai, it's common to seek out a breakfast of sheng jian bao, a delicious orb of pork and gelatin, pan-fried and garnished with sesame seeds. The gelatin becomes a kind of soup when heated, effectively turning the bun into a bready xiao long bao, where the liquid is held in by a perfectly crisped edge. Back in Los Angeles, there is no better version than at Emperor Noodle, where the sheng jian bao are perfection realized. Eat it quickly; the liquid will soak into the crust if left alone. 800 W. Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel; (626) 281-2777.
7. Golden Deli
There is very little room to complain about Golden Deli; then again, people rarely do. Yes, the prices have increased marginally in its three-decade existence - almost inevitable when lines stretch across the parking lot six days a week (the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays). But otherwise, the restaurant itself is relatively flawless. The pho is good, the cha gio fried spring rolls are better, and it's always difficult not to order the banh hoi, a bird's nest of vermicelli served with grilled meat and fresh greens, and the banh beo, circular rice cakes laced with ground shrimp. It's also worth visiting Vietnam Restaurant, which is down the street (regrettably not in this intersection) and is run by Michael Le, a member of the Golden Deli family, and serves an excellent bo bay mon (seven course beef dinner). 815 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel; (626) 308-0803.
6. Hui Tou Xiang
There is a certain brash impudence associated with opening a noodle and dumpling shop next door to Luscious Dumplings, which has an established foundation of devoted followers and a decade head start on Hui Tou Xiang, which opened just three years ago. That confidence may simply come from the knowledge that Luscious has strange hours and a tendency to run out of ingredients (they have a set amount of dumplings they are willing to make, no matter the demand).
But lately, it seems that Hui Tou Xiang's confidence is justified. It's hard to claim Hui Tou Xiang plays second fiddle to any other dumpling spot when no other shop can offer the marvelous house-invented Hui Tou dumpling, which achieves dumpling Satori: a crispy, flaky edge and such a moist interior that it can be considered a distant cousin of xiao long bao soup dumplings. The three-flavor dumpling isn't far behind. And even the actual xiao long bao, perhaps the most popular dish in San Gabriel at the moment, holds its own against the SGV's xiao long bao kings (Din Tai Fung, Dean Sin World, Mama's Lu). 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 281-9888.
5. Kingburg Kitchen
Kingburg Kitchen is a typical dumpling and noodle shop - it resembles a diner - and it's impressive that it has lasted seven years within sight of spots like Luscious and Hui Tou Xiang. One reason, and perhaps the only reason one needs, is the fish and leek dumpling, which is the quintessential fish dumpling. The noodles, and the spicy beef noodle soup in particular, are also good. Like Luscious, they have a noodle and dumpling combo for $7, which is hard to top. If you want to bring the dumplings home, they sell 50 frozen for $18. 715 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 282-2386.
4. Luscious Dumplings
Luscious Dumplings is a simple place. When Alan and Grace Lam opened their tiny dumpling shop 13 years ago, they were competing with a host of nearby dumpling shops with similar offerings. They've navigated that competition not with glamour or pomp but with perfectly executed, luscious dumplings. Today, their shop is almost always full (admittedly, the place isn't much bigger than your freshman dorm room). Yes, it's difficult to get a table and they sometimes run out of dumplings far too quickly, but the crowds will keep coming anyway. 704 W. Las Tunas Dr., #4, San Gabriel; (626) 282-8695.
3. Nanjing Kitchen
The creation of a single Nanjing duck takes 26 hours, an intense effort of brining, boiling, hacking and sawing. The result of the elaborate process is a deceptively simple duck. It is served without embellishment. It is delicious. Nanjing Kitchen itself is just as simple; the counter usually operates as a take-out operation, where people come in and out all day to take home a duck (or a turkey, which is also available and apparently very popular on Thanksgiving). The counter is usually manned by owner John Zhang, who is, without fail, eager to tell you just how good his duck is. He's not wrong. 706 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 281-8968.
2. Southern Minitown
Shanghai cooking is widely regarded as China's most elegant cuisine - or, at the very least, its most diverse. Southern Minitown (a direct translation of Xiao Nanguo, which is what the restaurant is called on Google Maps) serves Wuxi spareribs that feature the famous "red cooking" of Jiangsu, braised meatballs from Yangzhou, and Shanghainese dim sum, the latter of which includes the aforementioned xiao long bao and sheng jian bao.
Shanghai dinners can be roughly divided into elaborate banquet dinners (see: Shanghai No. 1), more standard family dinners (see: Emperor Noodle), and the more coarse, simple Shanghai food (see: Dean Sin World). Southern Minitown's food lies somewhere between banquet-style and something more simple, but you tend to forget you're eating an $8 dish when it's as good as the fried seaweed yellowfish, which is so delicate and precisely garnished that you may think you're in Japan. 833 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel; (626) 289-6578.
1. Tasty Noodle House
With such fierce competition scattered through the Valley, it's not exactly surprising a restaurant like Tasty Noodle House can slip under the cracks. There are a few reasons its existence has been relatively ignored. One is that there's simply too much good food surrounding it. Another is that the flavors at Tasty Noodle House are more subtle than aggressive. It may take you a couple visits before you're sold, particularly for those seeking the immediate rush of Hunan chili or the satisfying numbness of Sichuan peppercorns.
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And part of the issue is that the menu doesn't truly fit a niche. The food is Dalian in nature - one of the more obscure cuisines in the Valley - and the first few pages of its menu resembles a dumpling and noodle shop, of which there are so many in the area that it is all too easy to ignore the restaurant in the corner of the Golden Deli strip mall. Turn a few pages of the menu, though, and the chef's ambition comes to light: The offerings include delicately fried intestine, crunchy jellyfish heads bathed in vinegar, lightly fried honey shrimp, a wonderful oyster soup, and probably the best Sichuan garlic eggplant in the Western Hemisphere.
This all makes sense under the kitchen's philosophy, where the chef writes that he's more concerned with the natural flavor of the ingredients than "heavy usage of oil, soy sauce, and msg" and that he hopes to "change your assumptions of Chinese food in general." It's difficult to argue that he doesn't succeed. Only the likes of Chengdu Taste, Lukshon, and Sea Harbour may be serving Chinese food as thoughtfully crafted in Los Angeles. 827 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel; (626) 284-8898.